Hispanics in engineering work in transformative roles
Hispanic engineers are playing a key part in high-profile projects ranging from popular consumer products to metropolitan highway systems
Employers are using a variety of strategies to recruit and support Hispanic engineers
By Sonya Stinson
'Status quo� is how Raul Munoz, executive director of MAES, Latinos in Science and Engineering, grades the state of progress in increasing the number of Hispanics in the engineering workforce.
�We�re probably not making as much progress as we would like, but at the same time we�re not losing any ground,� Munoz says.
Of course, organizations like MAES aren�t satisfied with the status quo. They continue to encourage Latinos to earn degrees in engineering and other STEM disciplines and to be competitive when they enter the job market.
Funding and support are key challenges
For many Latino students, the path to an engineering degree is complicated by the challenge of funding. Limited family finances mean that nearly two-thirds of Latino college students enroll in community colleges instead of four-year institutions immediately after high school, Munoz says.
While Munoz is in favor of community college as an entry point to higher education, he says those who choose it sometimes miss out on the exposure to industry and the support systems that engineering majors receive early on at universities. He also notes that when they do transfer from a two-year to a four-year institution, the transition is daunting for some.
�We�ve seen numerous students who may have been pulling a 3.7 or 3.8 GPA at a community college, only to plummet that first year at a four-year college to a 2.9 or a 3.0,� Munoz says.
In response, MAES is establishing more chapters at two-year institutions that feed four-year schools. That way, the organization�s leaders can start mentoring students early, and students have a built-in connection to MAES when they transfer.
Munoz notes that the majority of Hispanic students aggressively pursue co-op and internship work experiences during college because they understand how important it is for competing in the job market. But he�s concerned that, for financial reasons, some Hispanic engineering students don�t feel they can take advantage of experiences that might extend their graduation dates. �Paying for an extra semester is a valid concern for them if finances are tight,� he says. �They may have to delay graduation even further if there are required courses only offered during certain semesters that they miss because they�re on a co-op assignment.�
Hispanic engineers have an important role to play as mentors and role models for engineering majors. They can educate students about career options they may not learn about in the classroom, and can share some of the soft skills that employers look for when hiring, Munoz says.
The stories of the engineers profiled in this article � most students themselves not so long ago � offer a glimpse into what some Hispanic grads have done with their hard-won degrees.
Assistant civil engineer Meagan Matias works in construction at MWRD
Meagan Matias, an assistant civil engineer at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD, Chicago, IL), had a career plan before she even started high school. Her eighth-grade algebra teacher started inviting STEM professionals to do activities with the students every Friday.
�One day he brought someone who had us doing bridge-loading calculations and stoplight configurations, and I found it really interesting,� says Matias, who earned a BS in civil engineering from the Ohio State University (Columbus) in December 2012. �I went home that day and told my parents I was going to be a civil engineer, and that was that.�
Matias started with MWRD in 2013, in the field construction division. It was the first of several rotations in a foundation program that all new MWRD engineers must complete. The assignment takes her to a different plant every few months to conduct daily inspections of infrastructure improvement projects. It�s been a fun experience, she says, though it thrust her into unfamiliar territory at first.
�I graduated in civil engineering, but my specialization was hydraulics, so I didn�t take that many construction classes in school,� Matias says. �When I got the job, they told me I was going to be in the construction division, so I�m learning as much as I can from my more experienced co-workers.�
Matias discovered she really enjoys working on building projects, especially being able to see paper designs become real buildings. �I get to watch a bunch of dots on a piece of paper turn into an intricate lattice of steel reinforcement that gets filled with concrete, and next thing you know you�ve built a three-story, state-of-the-art disinfection facility. I didn�t think I was going to love it as much as I do,� she says.
At Ohio State, Matias made the tough decision to forego an internship in favor of an opportunity to study abroad in China. She knows the value of pre-graduation work experience, but she says her time in China taught her a lesson that has served her well as she launches her career: the importance of cultivating relationships with all kinds of people and being open to learning from them.
�Everyone, no matter what their job, has something valuable to teach you,� she says.
Electrical engineer Pedro Julio Paulino keeps the system reliable and safe at PPL
After completing three college internships at PPL Corporation (Allentown, PA), Pedro Julio Paulino was hired as a power system protection engineer for the company in 2012.
�I work on the relays that protect electrical equipment like the transformers and power lines during short-circuit conditions,� Paulino says. �If a tree falls down on a power line and immobilizes the system, we want to interrupt the power on the line as quickly as possible to make sure it�s safe for people walking around the area.�
Improving the power delivery system for PPL customers has involved employing some interesting new technology, according to Paulino. One example is the PPL Smart Grid, which incorporates an automated system for decreasing the length of outages. �Instead of needing to get a crew out to fix something before power can be turned back on, the system can isolate the damaged area and restore power to the circuit from another location,� he explains.
Paulino�s job requires him to perform lots of calculations as he learns how the power system functions and figures out how to make it work better. He loves doing the math, but with a growing number of projects requiring more and more numbers to crunch, he says he finds his time management skills tested every day.
Drawn to power generation
Paulino received a BS in electrical engineering from Pennsylvania State University-Harrisburg in 2012. He also got a degree in electronic communications technology from Loyola Polytechnic Institute in his native Dominican Republic in 1997. He is an FAA-certified aviation mechanic and a U.S. Army veteran. He served from 2000 to 2006.
�I�ve always been interested in the electrical field, especially power generation,� says Paulino. �Back home, my country suffers a little bit in that area. The power is not so reliable.�
Someday he�d like to go back and help upgrade the power grid in the Dominican Republic. But he�s not looking for a job change any time soon. �I would like to do what I�m doing for a long time,� he says.
Transito Macias manages manufacturing quality for Nissan
As a manager for manufacturing quality at Nissan�s Canton, MS plant, Transito Macias works to ensure that vehicles ship out free of defects.
When a quality concern arises, she works with the company�s manufacturing team to resolve it by running trials, analyzing data and developing systems that keep the problem from recurring. �It�s even better when we can create a vehicle that doesn�t need any problem-solving,� Macias says.
Macias started at Nissan in 2006 and has held her current position at the company since 2013. Previously she was responsible for warranty reduction at the Canton plant. �I analyzed and dissected the warranty data related to our vehicles and pushed that information to manufacturing to help them understand what processes we could improve,� she says.
Macias was born in New Orleans, but her family is from El Paso, TX. Her father is the first U.S. citizen in her family. There are teachers, doctors and lawyers in her family. �There were no engineers, but my family certainly valued education. My grandparents always gave their children and grandchildren college savings bonds for our birthdays and Christmas, and that�s how I paid for my first year of college,� she says. Macias earned a BS in chemical engineering in 2001 and MS in chemical engineering in 2003, both from Mississippi State University (Starkville). Before arriving at Nissan, she spent two and a half years at International Paper Company in Vicksburg, MS.
While her current job may not seem directly related to her chemical engineering background, she says both types of work depend greatly on analyzing data. �In the chemical industry you are driven by data because there is such a high safety risk associated with the processes,� Macias says. �My current role is driven by data because we really want to be sure the work we do will have a positive impact on our customer.�
Making smart moves toward quality
One of the most important aspects of her job at Nissan, she says, is integrating quality control into the manufacturing process, so �it happens regardless of who is here or what is going on.�
For example, Macias and her quality control team found that applying the finishes on door panels last on the assembly line process helps prevent scratching. She points out, �By changing the order of how those parts are delivered to the line, we are able to ensure that no matter who puts on the finishes, as long as they are put on in the correct sequence, they�ll have the least amount of risk for creating a defect.�
Rodrigo Lopez-Negrete optimizes power generation at GE Global Research
Rodrigo Lopez-Negrete is a real-time optimization and controls engineer at GE Global Research (Niskayuna, NY), where he conducts studies of advance-control technology designed to improve operations in various GE business units.
His current focus is power generation research for the GE Power and Water division.
For instance, he�s working on a wind turbine project, using a combination of sensors to gather data on wind behavior. The aim is to safely and efficiently increase the amount of energy the turbines produce.
�My grandfather on my father�s side was a chemical engineer,� Lopez-Negrete says, �and talking with him helped me develop the mindset of an engineer.�
Lopez-Negrete earned a BS in chemical engineering from the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City in 2005 and an MS in chemical engineering from the same university in 2007.
He learned that one of the best-known professors in ChE was on the faculty at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU, Pittsburgh, PA), and so he came to the U.S. to study with the professor, supported by CMU National Science Foundation research grants. �The decision to leave home was not easy, and not part of my family traditions. But it has been worth the effort and worth the separation from my immediate family and friends. I studied with one of the best professors at one of the best universities in the U.S.�
He had studied English for many years in Mexico. �My parents always thought that learning English would give me an advantage, so they enrolled me in bilingual schools. The ability to speak both languages has certainly helped me,� he says.
He finished his PhD in chemical engineering in September 2011 and began working at GE that November.
Hooked on research
He didn�t start out planning to become a researcher. �When I was an undergraduate student, I wasn�t really thinking about going into research,� Lopez-
Negrete says. �But in my last two years I worked with some professors who were doing research, and I got hooked.�
During the final year of his PhD studies, Lopez-Negrete�s advisor was hired as a GE consultant and invited him to work on the project. Lopez-
Negrete got an inside look at the broad range of research done at GE�s lab, and came away convinced it would be a great place to work. �It�s a big lab with all sorts of things going on, and it�s never boring,� he enthuses.
Lopez-Negrete aspires to become a project leader and build a reputation at GE Global Research as a clinical expert in a specialized area of some kind. �I want the businesses to look for me when they need to solve their toughest technical problems.�
Anna Borrell Rovira helps implement systems and plans for clients at HNTB
In her job as deputy program manager with engineering consulting firm HNTB (Kansas City, MO), Anna Borrell Rovira is assigned to the North County Transit District in Oceanside, CA. She works on the implementation of a positive train control system for preventing railway accidents and other safety issues.
Besides assisting the program manager, Borrell Rovira is in charge of generating a constant stream of reports to HNTB clients. She also develops some of the program management plans.
Borrell Rovira joined HNTB in 2011 and has been in her current post since September 2013. She previously worked on a variety of civil engineering design projects, from grading and railway design to hydrology. One major project involved conducting a monthly earned value analysis for a high-speed rail system segment from Los Angeles to San Diego, CA, which was in an early design stage at the time. �I also did a little bit of transportation planning and developed a guidebook for cities on how to integrate travel demand management into the planning and development process,� she says.
Borrell Rovira earned a joint BS/MS in civil engineering from the Technical University of Catalonia in Barcelona, Spain in 2005. Borrell Rovira also received an MS in transportation engineering from San Diego State University in 2010. She came to San Diego in 2008 for graduate school.
A rewarding experience
Borrell Rovira says a consulting engineer�s toughest job is often �understanding exactly what the client wants.� But she finds it rewarding to work on the development of infrastructure projects that promise to have a transformative impact on San Diego County.
She hopes someday to advance to project manager, which would provide her with her first chance to oversee a project from start to finish.
Adrian Lopez conducts research and testing of high-power systems at Lear
At the headquarters of Lear Corporation in Southfield, MI, Adrian Lopez carries the title of engineer II. But his job description is a lot more complex than that brief designation.
�Research and development of cooling systems for high-power electronics is currently my main responsibility, but I also support various programs in testing and validation of their high-power components,� Lopez explains.
One project he�s working on involves the development of an aluminum terminal system at Lear to reduce the weight and cost of high-power connection systems on vehicles. �This particular terminal system pushes the material properties to their limits,� he says. Lear produces automotive electrical power management and seating systems.
Lopez boasts an impressive list of academic credentials. He received a BSE in aerospace engineering from the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor in 2010 and a 2012 graduate certificate in electric-drive vehicle engineering from Wayne State University (Detroit, MI). He got an MS in mechanical engineering from Wayne State University in 2013. And he has two more University of Michigan degrees in progress: an MSE in nuclear engineering and radiological sciences, which he expects to complete this year, and a PhD in the same subjects, with completion targeted for 2018.
Lopez interned at Lear in summer 2010 and was hired as an engineer I that November. He was promoted to engineer II in 2013.
Propelled by a desire to solve real-life problems
Besides his internship, Lopez says his undergraduate research experience was a major factor in his ability to land and succeed in his current job. Both allowed him to apply classroom theory to solving real-life problems, an endeavor he continues to find rewarding.
�I get to work on technology that will help us reduce our dependency on fossil fuels and create a better world for future generations,� he says.
Lopez has some very specific ideas about what he�d like to be doing in another five years at Lear.
�I would like to apply plasma technology to address issues in the automotive industry such as electromagnetic interference, and to enhance the electrical and mechanical properties of existing materials,� he says. �Getting admitted to the nuclear engineering PhD program at the University of Michigan was the main step to reach that goal. From there it�s just a matter of conducting cutting-edge research and successfully completing my PhD.�
Amanda Hopkins is rotating through Altria�s ELDP program
Amanda Hopkins is a senior associate engineer in the engineering leadership development program at Altria Group (Richmond, VA), which takes each participant through four one-year rotations.
Hopkins is Cuban American. �My grandmother, Conchita, has always inspired me,� she says. �She moved to the United States when she was only seventeen and taught herself to read and write English. Now she is the matriarch of our family, a strong woman who has passed down her culture and values. One of her favorite sayings is �One day at a time.� Her example of will and determination has helped me become the woman and engineer I am today.�
Hopkins wrapped up her first rotation in research and development in June. Her remaining assignments will have her working as a maintenance engineer, a production line leader, and, finally, in what Altria calls a �broadening rotation.� This will be a non-engineering job that Hopkins and her managers choose together, based partly on her personal interest and partly on business needs.
�It�s an exciting rotation, because you get to do something completely out of your comfort zone,� Hopkins says. �Some people have worked in finance. Others have worked in marketing or quality management.�
A full-time engineer at Altria since 2013, Hopkins interned at the company for two summers as a college student. From that experience she learned the importance of networking. She still meets for an occasional lunch with the Altria mentor she had during her first summer as an intern. �I also learned that it�s okay to fail,� she says. �The best way to learn and grow as an engineer is by handling issues as they arise. It teaches you the importance of perseverance and resilience. If everything always went according to plan, you would never be challenged to learn new things.�
Dazzled by chemical engineering
Hopkins received a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Virginia (Charlottesville) in May 2013. Her father was an electrical engineer, but when it was time for her to declare her intended major, she was dazzled by the people she met at the chemical engineering open house.
�I really fell in love with the chemical engineering department there,� Hopkins says. �The professors were great, and I just sort of clicked with the program.�
Hopkins is now working at Altria�s Phillip Morris USA manufacturing center as a process engineer in the maintenance engineering group. �It�s exciting to learn more about our manufacturing processes,� she says. �I�m continuing to develop both my leadership and chemical engineering skills.�
Civil engineer Rafael Anaya designs roadways for HNTB
Rafael Anaya, who does computer-aided roadway design for HNTB (Kansas City, MO), had a hand in the massive 405 Freeway project in Los Angeles, CA, nicknamed Armageddon.
�I worked on that project since its inception in 2008 and did a lot of modeling for the freeway, the ramps, most of the walls � you name it,� Anaya says. �I also did a lot of coordination with the contractors and the subs, and I talked to the surveyor every day and made sure that things were getting built and getting built right.�
The project was challenging and exciting for Anaya, who earned a 2006 BS in civil engineering from California Polytechnic Institute-Pomona. �Every day was a new adventure,� he says.
Before arriving at HNTB in 2007, Anaya interned with a Cal Poly professor who had a geotechnology consulting business. He took measurements in the field, tested samples in the lab and did some CAD work.
Showing early signs of interest
Anaya, whose father was also an engineer, was already drawing up roads on scraps of paper when he was a kid. A college course cemented his interest in civil engineering. �A professor of mine was an ex-DOT (Department of Transportation) employee,� Anaya recalls. �He was very passionate about what he did, and he motivated me to get into the field.�
Today, working on projects like the Sixth Street Bridge in Los Angeles, Anaya is getting an opportunity to be involved in project coordination as well as design. He thinks he has a good chance of landing more assignments that will give him higher levels of responsibility at HNTB.
�They�re giving me the opportunity to expand on my design background and experience,� Anaya enthuses. �They�re promoting from within, and I really like that about the company.�
Marjory Hockaday works on consumer product components at SAS
As a process engineer at Samsung Austin Semiconductor (SAS, Austin, TX), Marjory Hockaday monitors the stats that tell whether the manufacturing process is running according to the company�s and customer�s specifications.
Hockaday, whose maiden name is Nu�ez, was born in Caracas, Venezuela, and came to the U.S. with her family when she was eight. She got a BS in chemical engineering from the University of Texas-Austin in December 2010 and started working at SAS the following month.
She chose chemical engineering, which initially was an unfamiliar field to her. But math and chemistry had been her favorite subjects in high school. �I combined the two when I found out there was such a thing as chemical engineering,� Hockaday says.
She interned for two summers at the Texas Department of Transportation, where she tested products and supplies in the materials lab. She says the experience taught her a lot about what it takes to meet real-world job expectations from both supervisors and customers.
�It definitely gave me a different perspective from the school environment,� she says. �It wasn�t just the technical lessons. I learned how to apply all my knowledge and to work with other people as well.�
New and stimulating global work
Hockaday thrives in the fast-paced environment at SAS. �Everything we work on is new and stimulating, and it�s always changing,� she says. �It�s never boring.�
Hockaday has been to Samsung�s headquarters in South Korea, and hopes she�ll have the opportunity to return. In the meantime, she gets a kick out of working at her Texas location to help make some of the world�s most popular consumer technology.
Hockaday says, �It�s very exciting to know when the new devices come out, that I helped develop the chips that go into them.�
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